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Daily Reads: Lessons From the Death of the Video Store, ‘Jessica Jones’ and the Conversation Around Consent, and More

Daily Reads: Lessons From the Death of the Video Store, 'Jessica Jones' and the Conversation Around Consent, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Lessons From the Death of the Video Store Industry.
A long time ago when streaming video was a wacky idea and words like “Netflix” and “Hulu” were still nonsense, there were video stores, places that employed people to rent movies to the general public. It may sound weird, but there was a time when movies weren’t just a click away and human interaction was required to access them. The best video stores even catered to a person’s own individual tastes through strong employee-customer relationships. Over at Vox, critic and longtime video store veteran Dennis Perkins explores the hard lessons he learned from the death of the industry.

In the last days of the store, daily life at the store got pretty intense. Longtime customers were bereft. We tried to comfort them, explaining how our owner had ensured that our whole collection would soon be available at the public library — for free, even! It didn’t help much. Almost to a one, they had the same reply: “But you won’t be there to help us.” That was flattering and sad, and ultimately all we could do was agree: Yeah, we wouldn’t be there. There were tears and gifts and genuine concern (not unfounded) about what my coworkers and I would do to survive, a phenomenon both touching and illustrative of how identified we were with the role we played in their lives. A great video store is built on relationships, in some cases relationships that had gone on for years. Our customers were losing the people who’d helped shape their movie taste, who’d steered them toward things we knew they’d like and away from things they didn’t know they’d hate. We were losing the people that we, in our small way, had been able to help. We were all grieving the loss. Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and “The Iron Giant.” Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on “The Wire.” People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for “Cutter’s Way.” Other times, they’d take a recommendation for “Walking and Talking” and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion. If you think I’m overrating the power of these connections, consider this: Years ago, I helped a lovely, seemingly upstanding woman choose from several Shakespeare adaptations. The next week she returned, asking about the relative merits of zombie movies. Interesting, I thought. She started coming in regularly. After months of recommendations and some earnest cinematic dismantling (“Like a handful of romantic comedies thrown into a blender,” she said of “Love, Actually”), I became her go-to movie guy. A year later, I became her go-to everything guy when we got married. This phenomenon isn’t uncommon. We at the store ended up dating and/or wedding customers so consistently that it became a running joke from the boss that we were taking money out of his pocket. (Significant others got free rentals.)

2. “Jessica Jones” and the Conversation Around Consent and Sexual Assault.
The latest installment in the Marvel Universe is the new Netflix series “Jessica Jones” about a former superhero turned private eye who deals with the return of a mysterious villain who has the power of mind control. The series has received positive reviews from critics who praise the series’ down-to-Earth charm and compelling performances, but also its depiction of abuse and trauma. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes about how “Jessica Jones” presents interesting thought experiments about consent and sexual assault.

“Jessica Jones,” the new series about a private eye (Krysten Ritter) who has given up on superheroics, arrives on Netflix today as the most fully realized and human-feeling of the Marvel television shows to make it to the small screen. Unlike “Daredevil,” it leavens its grimness with humor and one of the more plausible, grown-up romantic relationships in the whole franchise, between Jessica and bartender Luke Cage (“The Good Wife” veteran Mike Colter). “Jessica Jones” has dandy action choreography and a fluid sense of how its characters’ powers would function up against human antagonists. And “Jessica Jones” has one of the best supervillains in recent memory: Kilgrave (David Tennant), who has the ability to take over his victims’ minds completely, at least for a certain period of time and from a certain geographic distance. While Kilgrave sexually abuses only some of his victims, his ability to take away their free will lets “Jessica Jones” stage interesting conversations about consent, who can lose it and what it means to have been deprived of your agency. In the real world, those discussions have become deeply entangled in larger debates about the politics of college campuses and sexual assault law. “Jessica Jones” may not be able to break those deadlocks. But it at least gives us new ways into fraught ideas. Kilgrave’s victims can be anyone: young, attractive women he wants to sleep with; a musician whose talent he covets; a decent policeman, Will Simpson (Wil Traval), whom Kilgrave wants to exploit to gain access to his victims; a marginal older man he tortured for the fun of it; and in one horrifying instance when he wants to upset Jessica deeply, a child. At least in the early episodes of the series, he’s loss of free will personified, and “Jessica Jones” is an unnerving reminder that no one is immune from him.

3. “Jessica Jones” Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg on Rape, Adaptation, and Female Sexuality.
Melissa Rosenberg is a writer who has worked in film and television for over 20 years. She wrote all five “Twilight” films, episodes of “The O.C.” and “Dexter,” as well as creating the short-lived ABC series “Red Widow.” Now, she is the creator, showrunner, producer, and writer of “Jessica Jones.” The L.A. Times’ Libby Hill sits down with Rosenberg to discuss “Jessica Jones,” how it developed after ABC passed on it, and its depiction of sexuality and abuse.

Q: The series deals with abuse, rape, and PTSD with such a deft hand. How important was nailing those elements to perfecting the overall tone of the show?

A: Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.

Q: From the outset, it was really wanting to treat the matter as directly as we could. 
One of the most unnerving elements with Kilgrave is when he directs women to “Smile.” Given the state of modern feminism and the movement to allow women more body autonomy, how much of that framing is related to modern misogyny?

A: [Laughs.] Let’s see, 100%? I was very conscious to really take all that on. This is a character who is not defined by her gender. She is first and foremost a character. I didn’t define her any more as a woman as you would “white guy” if it was a white male lead. But those of us of the female persuasion, our lives are certainly informed by our gender and the misogyny around us. Her stories were definitely informed by it.

Q: Television seems to struggle when it is tackling depictions of sex, both consensual and otherwise. Was it important for you to have a lot of sex-positive encounters on the show? Conversely, how did you make your choices regarding depicting or not depicting rape?

A: With rape, I think we all know what that looks like. We’ve seen plenty of it on television and I didn’t have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does. I wanted the audience to really viscerally feel the scars that it leaves. It was not important to me, on any level, to actually see it. TV has plenty of that, way too often, used as titillation, which is horrifying.

4. The Cathartic Power of Terrorism Comedy “Four Lions.”
Though many perceive pop culture as simply a vehicle for empty entertainment, the truth is that plenty of people use pop culture as a healing tool after suffering a personal or national trauma. After the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, it’s only natural for people to want to find joy after such a terrible event, but to find joy within the pain is an even better deal. For GQ, critic Nathan Rabin explores the terrorism comedy “Four Lions” and how its audacious comedy can help people move on from their fears.

In the 16 years I worked for “The Onion,” mostly as the head writer of its entertainment section “The A.V. Club,” I was never prouder to be part of the organization than when the satirical institution put out its 9/11 issue. At a time when our country was hurting and looking for answers, direction, and solace, this issue gave a worried populace permission and encouragement to not just face the previously unfathomable tragedy that has just occurred but to laugh at the absurdity lurking underneath all the despair. To a world similarly shaken following the bloodshed in Paris, the 2010 British black comedy “Four Lions” offers a similar cathartic appeal. Filmed with hand-held cameras in the no-frills style of a documentary or docudrama, “Four Lions” chronicles the tragicomic terrorist machinations of a quartet of radical Islamic terrorists determined to martyr themselves to the sacred cause of Jihad, or die trying. “Four Lions” was pretty goddamned audacious and bold at the time of its release but in the ensuing years it has become, like “Idiocracy,” one of the defining satires of our time — and the Paris massacres and the Boston Marathon bombings have lent the film a depressing timeliness. Of course, a lot of people might understandably find the idea of watching a pitch-black slapstick comedy about Jihadists planning a terror attack on a major European city at this point in abysmal taste, if not downright offensive. But when people are hurting and confused, finding the humor in a situation seemingly devoid of levity can be not only healthy and productive but essential. It gives us a way of processing and understanding trauma rather than giving in to rage, hopelessness, or despair. Making light of the things that terrify us is a way of moving on, of not letting those fears defeat or immobilize us.

5. These So-Called Bad Films Prove The Urgency of Film Criticism.
Since last Friday, the BAM theater in New York is hosting a repertory series called “Turkeys for Thanksgiving,” which showcases films of great ambition that were critically derided upon release often because of said ambition. The commercial and critical failure of these films unfairly ended many directors’ careers, like Elaine May with “Ishtar” and Michael Cimino with “Heaven’s Gate.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody examines the repertory series (running until Sunday) and how it proves the urgency of film criticism now more than ever.

When a studio invests large sums of money into movies of little artistic ambition, it’s the story of a business doing what businesses do. Critics often distinguished (with an often oblivious rigidity) between movies of artistic merit and purely commercial productions. (That’s why many of the greatest filmmakers of their time, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, who all happened to work in Hollywood, went long unrecognized.) But, when a filmmaker hijacks the industrial machinery for a personal project, a critic’s aesthetic sense often goes out the window, and is replaced by umbrage, outrage, indignation. The attacks on Michael Cimino for “Heaven’s Gate,” on Elaine May for “Ishtar,” on Joseph Mankiewicz for “Cleopatra,” on Peter Bogdanovich for “At Long Last Love,” were spiked by resentment at filmmakers who managed to take over the system to realize their genius. It’s the instinctive conservatism of writers who, even without realizing it, became invested in the interests of the industry rather than in the well-being of the art. Criticism is better than ever today, because critics tend to know more — and even know that there’s a lot we don’t know, because other critics are around to remind us. It’s a grim paradox. Just at the moment when the economics of working as a film critic are worse than ever, the practice is at a peak. Many of the best writers about movies are writing mainly online; many don’t have a regular outlet for their work; many aren’t read widely by moviegoers. But through the welcome amplification of social media, they’re read by other critics, and the influence of these mainly (but not exclusively) younger critics, ones who keep up with independent filmmaking and international cinema, who have deep and broad affinities for the history of cinema (which, thanks to home video and streaming, is more readily and diversely available than ever), makes itself felt in criticism at large. (The very programming of this series at BAM is a sign of their influence.)

6. Touch Me Not, But Watch Me Plenty: Movie Marathons, Shia LaBeouf, and “OUT 1.”
Earlier this month, Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour, long-unseen 1971 film “OUT 1: Noli me tangere” was released into theaters for a two-week run. During those two weeks, actor Shia LaBeouf staged an art installation called #AllMyMovies in which he watched all of his films in reverse chronological order at the Angelika Film Center in New York, an event people could watch via a live stream or join in person at the theater. At Paste Magazine, Alissa Wilkinson explores both marathons and how they tackle the thin line between performance and reality.

Like I said, it’s probably a coincidence that during the same stretch of time, a bunch of cinephiles, hardy or foolish or both, were spending $50 plus popcorn money to sit in a theater for 13 hours for Jacques Rivette’s 1971 film “OUT 1: Noli me tangere.” I was one of them, perching dead center for all eight “episodes” of the film over two days. In the sprawling narrative, two different Parisian theater groups are rehearsing plays by Aeschylus (“Seven Against Thebes” and “Prometheus Bound”), while one young deaf-mute man panhandles and a bewitching young women swindles. Also there’s some kind of conspiratorial group modeled on the “Thirteen” of Balzac’s novels. Most of the first installment consists of the “Prometheus” group engaging in a big, loud, moaning-and-mud-slinging acting exercise that begins with pairs mirroring one another’s actions and ends (a lot later) in a pantomime of a pagan ritual. There’s other stuff going on, but this sets the tone. We’re not here to engage with an epic plot so much as settle down into the slow rhythm of real time, to live with characters over a long period. Most of the characters are actors, conscious always of being watched (and trying not to be). And those characters are played by real actors who know they’re in a film. So we’re several layers deep, as audience members. The film wants us to remember that real life is just as much of an improvisation — in fact, more so — as anything that happens in the theatre. People repeat lines and interact with one another in ways we realize are drawn from previous interactions. In real life, Rivette seems to be saying, we are all engaged in creating some kind of spectacle, each of us at the center of our own story. The theater exercises in which characters engage are designed to break down barriers between their fellows (barriers that keep getting thrown up through arguments or conflicts of artistic vision) and to bust any wall between emotion and reality. They are getting “in touch,” sometimes literally, with each other, with themselves, with the story. In other story lines, the deaf-mute young man, Colin, is suddenly neither, and wanders around the city chanting to himself; the young woman, Frederique, falls in love and mingles her blood with her lover’s blood. But all falls apart. Connection fails. The troupes split up. Language begins to run backwards or loop, underlining the difficulty of any of this happening at all.

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